Circle of Life: Wildebeest Migration

In Tanzania, the circle of life is all based on the rains. Monsoons in the Indian Ocean decide when those rains will arrive in the Serengeti. A shorter rain arrives in November and December, while a longer rain unleashes more life, giving drops of water from February to April.  The wildebeest herds in the Serengeti live in concert with the timing of the rains. My husband, Damien, and I hosted a trip in February designed to witness the circle of life within the Serengeti wildebeest herds.

As the shorter rainy season begins in Serengeti, the wildebeest are mainly centered in the northern regions, or Masai Mara. Prevailing winds carry the scent of rain to the herds, triggering the migration to the nutritious grasses of the Serengeti. The short grasslands of the eastern Serengeti offer an ideal place and time for the wildebeest to give birth to their calves, from February to early March.

Our journey began in Arusha, the town mainly used as the starting point for safaris to Tanzania’s northern reaches. Some members of our group were here for the first time, and a few others had traveled with us before. My favorite part of hosting a trip is knowing everyone is about to bond over the experience, and that these friendships last a lifetime.

We provisioned the land cruisers and set off for an exciting eight days of adventure. Stopping by the roadside to sample roasted corn, much like popcorn on a stick, proved to be a welcome snack for the drive to our first stop overlooking the Rift Valley in Lake Manyara.

One of the valley’s many saline and seasonal lakes, Manyara is dry many months of the year, never filling much more than 10-12 feet in the rainy season. As our Land Cruisers climbed the steep red dirt wall of the escarpment, the shallow waters of the lake reflected the clear blue sky while the shores, pink with flamingoes, gave way to green flats filled with giraffe and cape buffalo. Ernest Hemingway once referred to Lake Manyara as “the loveliest lake in Africa.” 

As far as we could see to the south and rising above the lake, the eastern wall of the valley dropped from the highlands nearly 2,000 feet, sandwiching the national park’s green forests between the base of the rift and the lake. We arrived just before sunset at the viewpoint on the southern rim of Ngorongoro Crater. Over 100 square miles, the caldera boasts the highest concentration of wildlife anywhere in Africa.

Our base was The Serena Lodge, which is nestled on the rim a short drive away. One of my favorite features of this property is that the rooms have private balconies overlooking the crater.

For the next two nights, we enjoyed sundowners at the lodge after visiting the crater floor and a local Maasai boma, or a house.

It is rumored that “sundowners” were started by colonial British explorers in the early days of the safari life. A spot is chosen where the weary travelers could sip a cocktail, collect their thoughts of the day and share stories about the day’s experience. The location always has a view of the sun dipping below the horizon, thus lending the name “sundowner” to the tradition. Drinks helped the intrepid travelers relax, but also provided medicinal purposes. For example, a favorite is a traditional gin and tonic, which precludes malaria and scurvy. The tonic contains quinine, a well-known aid in keeping Malaria away. The lime or lemon wedges contain vitamin C, which reduces scurvy.

We discussed all the wildlife we were fortunate enough to see during our crater visit. Our stay was highlighted by up-close encounters with rhino and lions. We were greeted by scores of elephants, gazelles, wildebeests, hyenas, hippos, elands and various monkeys. When we thought that we had seen it all, we saw wildebeest delivering their newborn calves before our eyes.

The newborn wildebeest stirred up emotions for many of us, as you couldn’t help but reflect on life’s fragility yet resilience. Before the birth, we had seen several young ones obviously born within the hour. A wildebeest is able to walk within minutes of birth, and run soon after. This is a necessity to keep up with mom and the herd, and to be safe from predators. As we slowly rode out of the Lerai Forest on the crater floor, we saw a mother begin to deliver her calf. We spent the next 15 minutes watching as she changed positions and helped her baby come into the world. The tender licking and nuzzling of the newborn lasted a few minutes, until the baby began to take its first steps. Many of us were left with tears in our eyes, as we had just witnessed one of life’s most beautiful and amazing attributes. What a child of ours would need months of care to accomplish, nature placed before us in a matter of minutes.

We headed to the short grasslands of the Serengeti on the road less traveled. Instead of leaving the crater on the main tourist track, we took a path to the village of Endulen. Perched on the escarpment over 2,000 feet above Lake Eyasi in the Rift Valley, it is home to a mission school and bush hospital that we visited. From here the views into the Serengeti are seemingly endless.

The track gently descended through the acacia woodland and dry stream beds. Lake Ndutu, which is on the boundary of the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation was our home for the next five nights. The lake has an acacia forest surrounding it, but around the forest is the short grass of the Serengeti. This area is great for animal sightings; we saw cheetahs, wildebeests, zebras, lions, elands, gazelles and various types of birds.

Perhaps it is due to my many memories here as a resident, but the beauty of the area has always captivated me. The weather is a simple, yet a major factor. After a hot day on safari, once the sun begins its path below the horizon, the air cools just enough to make your body start to re-energize. The differences in the rainy season and the dry season are also notable. From the depths of the dry season, the area can appear as nothing more than a dry, barren, dusty wasteland. But behold the days following the rains! Green grasses, wildflowers of every color, and sunsets reflecting the moisture and the dust, become the canvas to paint the picture of a perfect sundowner!

Early one morning, we all participated in a balloon safari, followed by a traditional champagne toast and breakfast under the Acacia trees. Here we watched herds of wildebeest wandering across the grassland in search of water and food.  Afterwards, we encountered lions in the heat of passion, and then the same lions chasing vultures off their fresh morning kill.

We also experienced the engagement of a young couple at sunset in the midst of the nature surrounding us, only further adding to our circle of life experience.

Our last morning at Lake Ndutu was bittersweet. It is never easy to leave such beauty, but the anticipation of the wonders ahead made the morning a bit more bearable.

Some of us have spent thousands of hours in small airplanes over the Serengeti. Never has a single hour looked as the previous has. Needless to say, our flight out of Ndutu to Rubondo Island did not disappoint! Once we reached the boundary to the Serengeti, farms of maize dotted the scenery until we reached Mwanza, on the coast of Lake Victoria, our fuel stop. From Mwanza, the short 30-minute flight along the southern coast of Lake Victoria enabled everyone to see a different side of Tanzania in comparison to the grasslands and high semi-arid regions we visited over the past week. Fishing villages, dugout canoes, and beaches full of dagaa fish drying in the equatorial sun on beaches surrounded by banana trees gave way to the uninhabited shores of our destination.

Upon landing, we were greeted by the Asilia Lodge staff with mimosas and water bottles before the short ride through the forest to the lodge itself.

Nestled on a beach surrounded by forest, the lodge is both charming and rustic, while still being comfortable and peaceful. Swimming is not recommended and signs reminded us at every turn that hippos and crocodiles were abound. Our lunches and dinners were served on the beach.

Sundowners our first night were on the western shores of the island, after game walks searching for sitatunga and bird watching. We spent our second and fullest day hiking the highlands in search of chimpanzees. Even though rainstorms cut the search short, we all agreed the time was well spent getting to enjoy each other’s company for one last day in such beautiful high country settings.

After lunch, a couple set out to fish while the rest of the group began a boat tour of the island shores complete with birdlife and crocodiles. As sunset approached, we made our way to the lodge for a final sundowner, fireside.

En route to the airstrip, we enjoyed more hippo viewing by boat, which seemed like a fitting goodbye from the wildlife of Rubondo. The two-hour flight to Arusha retraced our stops in the Ndutu and Ngorongoro area. We ended our journey shopping in town, and enjoyed a quick lunch, as the group began to separate to head their various ways back home. Everyone remarked how this trip had changed their outlook on life in some way. To experience a holiday this way means you fully immersed yourself in the safari, and draw upon the magic and beauty of all of the aspects of the adventure. Whether it’s the wildlife, the scenery, your companions or anything else — we all came out of it changed in some way for the better.

I feel our experience was best described by one of our guests,

“Before we left I thought a safari was about seeing wildlife, I have never been so wrong. The safari for me was relearning to enjoy being with Melissa. We have never been without the kids since our daughter was born, 12 years ago. It was about learning a new culture and learning a new language…making new lifelong friends. It’s was about meeting people that I will never forget. The ladies selling roasted corn on the street, the wheeler-dealers at the Masai village, the staff at the bush hospital, the park rangers at Rubondo Island. Of course our guides Christopher and Philemon. The wildlife was just the vessel to get us there. What a surprise.  I know you worked incredibly hard putting this trip of a lifetime together and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We can never do another safari because it will never live up to this trip. Unless we go with you again.” – Craig K, Frontiers Client

 

 

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